Harvesting Arkansas Honkers

The Natural State is known for its outstanding duck hunting, but waterfowlers can have a blast bagging geese as well. (November 2006)

Most waterfowlers think of Arkansas as one of the top duck hunting states in the nation. More Arkansas sportsmen bag lone geese that stray over a blind than intentionally hunt the honkers, but the Natural State offers some excellent opportunities for bagging the big birds.

Arkansas sportsmen mostly target white-fronted geese -- also called "specklebellies," "snow geese" and "blue geese" (the third being really just a darker color variant of snow geese). Usually, Ross' geese, diminutive white geese about the size of a mallard, also flock with their look-alike snowy cousins. Occasionally, sportsmen bag a few resident Canadas as bonus birds on some hunts.

"We have a good population of resident greater Canada geese in northwest Arkansas," said Randal Boyington, an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife biologist in Fort Smith. "They can provide a lot of action at times. People just need to scout to locate a flock; then they can contact the landowners. Many landowners, especially grain farmers, want to get rid of the geese that destroy their crops, so they allow people to hunt them."

Most Arkansas geese travel down the eastern corridor of the Mississippi River Valley. White geese may gather in enormous flocks from Jonesboro to Lake Village. They feed in adjacent rice fields on both sides of the Mississippi River. Other birds follow the Missouri River and pass over northeastern Arkansas. Some follow the Arkansas River down through northwest and central Arkansas. The Red River Valley in southwest Arkansas near Texarkana also holds concentrations of geese.

"Eastern Arkansas usually has some really good opportunities to hunt snow and white-fronted geese," said Mike Coker, an AGFC biologist in Brinkley. "Sometimes, it seems we have a lot more geese than ducks and not a lot of people hunting them. Our public areas don't usually hold many geese, because they normally don't have a lot of big, open fields. Most public areas in eastern Arkansas are bottomland habitat -- good for ducks, but not for geese."

Geese tend to prefer dry or mucky fields of wheat, corn or rice instead of swamps or flooded timber. Occasionally someone might bag a lone snow goose or specklebelly at one of the greentree wildlife management areas, but few public properties in Arkansas offer excellent goose habitat.

An exception to that rule is Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, which contains about 15,000 acres of wetlands and reforested croplands near the town of Bald Knob in White County. One of the newest federal refuges in Arkansas, this area made up of farmland cleared in the 1960s opened in 1993. Farm and moist-soil units combine with mudflats to provide habitat for geese and other birds.

Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms Wildlife Management Area, a 4,000-acre area near Searcy in White County, offers some goose hunting at times. Some people hunt geese on Ozark Lake WMA in Franklin County or Dardanelle WMA in Franklin, Logan, Johnson, Pope and Yell counties. Since geese require grit to help them digest food, river sandbars can sometimes hold good flocks of geese, especially resident Canadas. Many people hunt the sandbars of the Arkansas River.

In eastern Arkansas, some people hunt the Mississippi, lower Arkansas, White or Cache rivers, although most geese in these areas fall as bonus birds for duck hunters. Established in 1935, the White River NWR preserves about 160,000 acres of bottomlands along the White River near the confluence of the White, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. The nearby 56,000-acre Cache River NWR also offers good waterfowl hunting at times.

With limited public land holding geese, most hunters seek honkers on private agricultural fields. Arkansas and Desha counties in the Grand Prairie region rank among the best places to hunt snow and specklebelly geese in the state. The agricultural fields east of Monticello and south of Stuttgart can provide good goose action as well. Other fields near Brinkley, Gillette and DeWitt also hold some geese. Some people grow rice near Morrilton and Carlisle. (Cont.)

"Goose hunting success on the Grand Prairie can vary by location," said Mark Barbee, an AGFC biologist from Monticello. "Some people had good success last season in the rice fields. This part of Arkansas usually attracts a lot of geese that follow the Mississippi River."

Fortunately, most landowners, especially farmers, want people to chase pesky geese away from their crops. Geese can inflict a tremendous amount of damage on agricultural crops in a short time before they move to another field. If people find a concentration of geese, they might well receive ready permission from the landowner; others hire guides with access to good fields.

A good field may attract a flock of snow and blue geese numbering in the tens of thousands. In fact, white goose numbers increased so dramatically in the past decade that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened a special "conservation order" season on them after all other waterfowl seasons close. During the conservation order season, wildlife officials allow sportsmen to use electronic calls, unplugged shotguns and other means to bag as many snow geese as possible. People may hunt for longer hours and kill unlimited white geese during this special season.

The federal government encourages the increase harvest of white geese, because the northern Canadian tundra habitat can't support the burgeoning population. The superabundance of snow geese existing at present is inflicting severe damage on the birds' ecologically fragile breeding grounds in the tundra near Hudson Bay. Like sheep, geese pull plants up by the roots, creating mudflats. Without plants to anchor the mud, tides wash away the slush, erasing wetlands and available breeding habitat for geese and other species. With such a short growing season in the frigid Arctic, it takes years for tundra ecosystems to recover from the damage -- if ever.

Gigantic populations of geese don't necessarily translate into cassoulet or honker jerky. Enormous flocks of white geese don't respond well to decoys. Hundreds of sentries watch for anything suspicious. To bag geese today, people often need access to multiple areas. Geese might feed in one field, stripping it bare of anything edible in a few days, and then disappear to another area, not returning for several weeks. Many people can't afford high prices for leases, hoping that birds appear, so they hire guides with access to thousands of acres of prime goose habitat.

"Geese are hard to hunt," Coker said. "Some people do it, but it's hard work, because they move so much. They eat through a field and then move to another one. People have to stay on top of them, because they become leery quickly."

If you find geese, you shouldn't attempt to hunt the main body, as you'll never fool 20,000 geese, and will probably chase them away instead. Hunters should rather try finding two large bodies and positioning themselves between the flocks in order to pick off stragglers flying between the two concentrations. A single, a pair or a small flock might respond better to calling or proper decoy placement than will a huge flock.

Sensing that there's safety in numbers, geese stay together in huge flocks, and do indeed manage to live longer for it. Many sportsmen who used to deploy hundreds of white rags to attract snow geese have of late concluded that they need to think of better ways to outsmart those veterans. Now, many goose hunters rely upon full-body decoys or shells consisting of the upper half of decoys. Some people also use printed silhouettes. For a three-dimensional effect, many hunters use windsocks.

Some people use "flying decoys," goose replicas attached to long poles. Hunters can adjust the height off the ground of each decoy to make it appear like a goose hovering over the spread on final approach before landing. Some of these twist in the wind, adding movement to the spread.

However, nothing looks more real to a goose than a real goose. To achieve this, sportsmen can thrust sticks into the throats of dead geese to hold them up or prop them up on grass clumps. Such dead geese add a superior degree of realism to any spread.

Mounted geese also add realism to a spread. A good taxidermist can mount a goose in many poses. While these stuffed decoys might not exhibit the degree of artistry in a trophy mount, they fool geese better than does anything else on the market. They cost much more than conventional decoys, but much less than trophy mounts. Sportsmen can use them for several years before they must replace them with newer kills.

"It's amazing how good the eyesight of a goose is," said David Smith, an avid hunter. "The slightest movement will draw attention. It's amazing how much geese focus on a little wind movement from feathers of a bird that had been shot or stuffed and used as a decoy. Feathers moving in the wind draw geese. Many people hunt with five or six stuffed geese for decoys. That's the best decoy anyone can use. In the past, we've even cut the wings off dead geese and tied them to decoys just to give that slight movement in the spread."

State law prohibits people from using spinning wing decoys in Arkansas except during the special conservation-order season. According to AGFC laws, people may not use any "battery-powered, electronic, mechanically-operated, wind-powered or manually-powered spinning/flapping-blade devices intended to simulate wing movement" for ducks or geese during the regular seasons.

However, sportsmen can still add a little eye-catching movement to an otherwise lifeless spread with various kites or flapping flag devices. Some sportsmen wave white or dark flags on sticks to create movement. Much like spinning wing decoys, flags reflect sunlight, creating flash. From a distance, geese see the movement and flash. One or two notes on the call might also make them look in the right direction; curious, they might fly over to investigate.

Other goose hunters tie alternating black and white flags to low strings. Still others fabricate goose beacons similar to old-fashioned clotheslines by anchoring two poles and stretching a line of flags 6 to 8 feet off the ground, thus creating flash that geese can see from long distances. They position these contraptions off to the side of the blind and slightly away from it -- wanting their quarry to look toward the movement and away from the hunters' hide -- taking special care to select a spot that the wind will hit hard, setting the white flags or streamers dancing in the air currents.

Some sportsmen actually fly near their blinds kites that resemble flying geese. When flocks of geese approach, hunters pull the kites down to simulate geese landing in the field. Gregarious creatures, live geese might follow the fake ones to the ground.

"I like kites," Smith said. "Kites are constantly moving. I've watched geese fly right over kites and hover over them. We sometimes have to pull in kites tight because they are so effective. I only fly them about 20 to 30 feet off the ground."

Probably more than do other geese, specklebellies frequently fall incidentally to duck hunters. In many ways, specklebelly hunting closely resembles duck hunting. For instance, people might chase snow geese up and down the delta, but they can usually call specklebellies to a blind with a few good notes and properly placed decoys. Frequently, duck hunters might fill a limit with mallards and specklebellies on the same morning in many places.

"Specklebellies sure changed the way we look at goose hunting in this part of Arkansas," said Charles "Hammer" Snapp of Davy Crockett Hammertime Guide Service in Walnut Ridge. "Over the past several years, I've seen a noticeable change in goose hunting in Arkansas. I've seen record numbers of specklebellies, especially early in the season."

Snapp hunts about 8,000 acres of flooded timber, moist-soil units and crop fields in northeast Arkansas. In the crop fields, he generally hunts out of pit blinds surrounded by duck decoys. However, he usually puts a few specklebelly or Canada goose decoys off to one side and keeps his ears tuned for the raucous cackling of lonely specks.

"What tends to shock me is that very few people in northeast Arkansas hunt specklebellies," Snapp said. "Many people kill them when duck hunting, but they are really sensitive to seeing specklebelly or perhaps Canada decoys. Specklebellies are far more responsive to calls in smaller groups than snows and blues. It doesn't take dozens of decoys to get specklebellies to respond. They might respond to three or six decoys. The addition of a couple specklebelly decoys to a duck spread also builds confidence for ducks."

In recent years, Snapp has spotted increasing numbers of specklebellies in his part of Arkansas. He credits geography and increased agricultural production, especially rice, with attracting more birds. Arkansas now leads the nation in rice production with much of that growing in the northeastern part of the state.

"Five or six counties in northeast Arkansas produce more rice than the rest of the state put together," Snapp said. "Southeast Missouri also produces a lot of rice. That provides a major food source for wintering waterfowl well north of the old feeding grounds on the prairies of southern Arkansas. Therefore, birds that used to winter in south Arkansas or Louisiana now winter in northeast Arkansas or southeast Missouri instead of moving farther south."

Birds coming down from Oklahoma, Missouri and the Great Plains pour through a natural funnel between the foothills of the Ozark Mountains to the west and Crowley's Ridge to the east. When they arrive in the floodplains of northeast Arkansas, they discover abundant food from rice and stay in the vicinity.

"We're seeing specklebellies in larger groups in this part of the state," Snapp said. "I

n the south, they tend to break up into smaller flocks, but we sometimes see flocks of 50 or more birds. We get small groups, but it's not uncommon to see 150 birds grouped together early in the season."

With more birds and few people intentionally hunting specklebellies in northeast Arkansas, geese respond well to calls, Snapp said. Unlike snows, every one of which in a flock of 10,000 tries to outdo its brethren in noisemaking, specklebellies key off certain geese. If one caller can "talk" to the lead goose, the entire flock might follow the leader to the ground, or at least pass within shotgun range.

"Specklebellies are easy to work in northeast Arkansas because they don't hear a lot of people calling to them," Snapp said. "A lot more people hunt them in southeast Arkansas or in Louisiana than in northern Arkansas. If a caller can get one specklebelly committed with its wings locked and coming in and hunters don't let the birds see them, the whole group might land in front of the blind."

Even when not migrating, a goose might fly 200 miles in a day looking for food. If people scout to keep up with the flocks and knock on a few doors, they might pick up some opportunities to bag birds passing through the Natural State.

To book trips with Snapp, call 1-800-541-5590, or go online to www.arkansaswaterfowl.com. For the AGFC, call 1-800-364-4263, or visit www.agfc.state.ar.us online.

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